San Francisco is welcome to everyone but delivery robots. Using a new ban on robotic delivery technology throughout most of the city, legislators are sending the strong – and wrong – message that they intend to lead innovation, not lag behind it.
City legislators unanimously passed new rules that basically ban the use of delivery robots on most sidewalks. Robots will now be restricted to operating in certain industrial neighborhoods on sidewalks that are at least six-feet wide. Permits to operate delivery robots will be capped at three per company. Robots will only be allowed to move three miles per hour and a human operator must stay within 30 feet of the robot during testing.
If this all sounds restrictive, it is, but it could have been worse.
Delivery robots are a new trend that promise to create efficiencies in delivery – cutting down on delivery vehicles and labor costs. Proponents also say they reduce congestion, pollution, and accidents on city roads. Restaurant owners and business associations like them. There’s also the prospect that these machines could deliver other things such as medicine for homebound patients.
However, opponents complain that the robots crowd sidewalks, could be hazardous to human beings, and are needless technology. At a hearing, a local activist who uses a wheelchair noted: “You do not need a robot to deliver a ham sandwich. If you want one that badly, just go down and get it yourself.”
The sponsor of the regulations views robots as a hazard:
“Not every innovation is all that great for society,” said the San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee, who authored the legislation. “If we don’t value our society, if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot … what is happening?”
Opponents also point to the displacement of delivery jobs. That's looking at the glass half empty. New positions are being created to build, program, and monitor these robots – especially in cities like San Francisco which demand human oversight. That's true of technology in general.
There are good reasons to embrace change. Other cities and states such as Washington D.C., Virginia, Idaho, and San Francisco’s neighbor Redwood City, have legalized delivery robots, but San Francisco is moving in the opposite direction with these rules.
That is because this is bigger than just delivery robots. This is a battle in the war between public policy and technology. City lawmakers want to take the reins of control over innovation in an area that is known for pioneering disruptive technologies. These policymakers take the view that technology has developed without their permission and now they want to turn the tide:
"When it comes to being proactive about the development of commonsense regulations for commuter shuttles or the sharing economy, such as Airbnb or Uber," Yee said at a meeting in October, "somehow we have sent the signal that it is acceptable to act now and ask for forgiveness later."
Concern for pedestrians is a legitimate public safety concern, but the response should be commensurate with issue. So far, there haven’t been reported accidents or injuries that justify a near full ban of the technology. This suggests that the motivation of lawmakers is about power and control.
Innovation has flourished and blossomed under light government control. When government exerts unnecessary control, it hampers how technology develops. In the end, consumers who stand to benefit from greater access to the goods and services they want at lower prices, lose out.